North Korea: Time-Out or a Spanking?

Carr Bomb returns with the first in a two day series on North Korea.

It’s all but become common knowledge that North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Il is nothing but an unruly teenager, screaming for attention.  But the current administration needs to start taking seriously the implications that failure to find a fresh, quick approach to solving the North Korean problem could have on the region and the world.  President Obama must realize that hard-line talk one minute, and cushy diplomatic visits by former presidents the next sends a confusing and weak message to North Korea, our allies in East Asia, and the world.

First, a brief North Korean history lesson. With its patron state collapsing in 1991, China engaging in heavy trade with the United States, and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung on the verge of death, North Korea found itself exposed and began progressively developing its own nuclear deterrent.  The US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, with the assistance of former President Jimmy Carter, wherein North Korea promised to end enrichment in exchange for US assistance in modernizing power plants, within no specific timeframe.

However, when the Republicans won a Congressional majority that same year, funding for US obligations was cut off and progress was considerably slowed, which made the DPRK drag its feet in nuclear disarmament. The highest level official state visit occurred when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000 to confirm that North Korea was ending its nuclear program and offer concessions in exchange for more progress.

When the Bush Administration took power in 2001, the US had not met its obligation to deliver a light water reactor under the Agreed Framework, and North Korea had continued to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons use. The Bush Administration declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil” and adopted a more hard-line approach to Pyongyang. During this time, North Korea increased weapons exchanges with other rogue states (including most prominently US “ally” in the War on Terror, Pakistan) and began to conduct ever-more-provocative nuclear weapons and missile tests.

The six-party talks in 2007 concluded that progress would be made, within no specific timeframe, towards a formal peace treaty, as opposed to an armistice, between the two Koreas, nuclear disarmament, and normalization of US-North Korean relations. In 2008, after a period of feet-dragging and tension between the two nations, North Korea agreed to allow inspections of available materials in exchange for the US removing it from the list of States Sponsoring Terrorism.

In 2009, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear weapons test and has since conducted several missile tests as well as abducting two American journalists. On August 4th, former President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Current TV, which may have been but probably wasn’t a “solely private mission”.

After fifteen years of little progress, it’s clear that the Obama Administration needs to adopt a fresh policy to curb this out-of-control nation. Recently, newspapers have been inundated with “alternative” solutions for North Korea, which basically fall into four distinct families.

(1) Soft-Unilateral: engage with North Korea directly; offer concessions in exchange for non-proliferation and disarmament. While the Obama Administration does not acknowledge complicity in former President Clinton’s recent trip to Pyongyang to secure the release of journalists Lee and Ling, it would seem consistent with Democratic policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. During this time, another former Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, acted as envoy for the US and showed a friendly face to Pyongyang after years of hard-line diplomacy (until 1991, the US had up to 950 nuclear warheads pointed directly at North Korea). Furthermore, many Clinton Administration officials, especially former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, feel progress was being made and was “undone” by the Bush Administration’s abrupt about-face in 2002.

That being said, the recent nuclear test and missile launches drew condemnation from even traditional North Korean allies and Six-Party Talks members Russia and China, and North Korea has allegedly ceased its weapons exchanges and funding of terrorist groups. It would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that progress has also been made on North Korea under the Bush Administration. Obama must be careful not to repeat that administration’s mistake of basically nullifying all prior agreements upon entering office. It would allow Kim Jong-Il to think he can just stall until the next election.

Whether complicit or not, the Obama Administration’s allowing Bill Clinton to travel to Pyongyang for a photo-op after years of hard-line diplomacy sends mixed messages to the North Korean regime and to our allies in East Asia. Clinton’s visit sends the symbolic gesture that his administration’s style of unilateral, soft diplomacy is going to be resurrected under Obama, that the US is more concerned with petty party politics than with anti-proliferation, and that North Korea doesn’t have to adhere to any of its prior agreements and can begin proliferation activities anew.

(2) Hard-Multilateral: consider North Korea an enemy of the United States; impose multilateral sanctions. Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by former Dick Cheney national security advisor Stephen Yeats and former State Department deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Christian Whiton suggesting a “new” approach for diplomacy to North Korea.

The editorial likened the actions of former President Bill Clinton in securing the release of hostages Euna Lee and Laura Ling to “rewarding Pyongyang for bad behavior”. Yeats and Whiton suggest that, instead of bribing Kim Jong-Il’s regime to not take journalists hostage, the US assemble a formal planning group for regional powers to both strengthen alliances and put additional pressure on Pyongyang, similar to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, which supposedly strengthened US hegemony in Europe in the 1960’s and showed the Soviet Union a united front during the early days of the Cold War. Of course, in addition to being a not-so-veiled continuation of the Six-Party framework, Yeats and Whiton`s proposal begs the question: why would China and Russia join an organization that revolves around a US nuclear deterrent when they already have one?

Moreover, for economic sanctions to have any effect on North Korea, both Russia and China, as the bulk of North Korean trade, must be given the most prominent seats at the table. Moscow and Beijing are strongly opposed to increased sanctions, and, since China is financing our rapidly increasing treasury debt, our bargaining power would be limited. If the Obama Administration goes ahead with a continuance of a hard-line, sanctions-based, multilateral policy towards North Korea, this would inevitably result in the US making major concessions to China, such as withdrawing our troops from South Korea or allowing PRC hegemony over Taiwan.

Furthermore, instead of strengthening alliances in the region, inevitable concessions for China arising from a hard-line, multilateral approach would most likely alienate both South Korea and Japan, who are dependent on the US as military protector and suspicious of China. As a response to growing Chinese regional hegemony, Japan or South Korea would very likely do exactly what France did in the 1960’s and develop an independent nuclear deterrent.

The former are the policies that have been tried and my general interpretation of the two major political parties’s proposed, enacted solutions. The last two strategies differ strikingly from mainstream methodologies and I will expand upon them tomorrow.


2 Responses to North Korea: Time-Out or a Spanking?

  1. joebenaiah says:

    I disagree with your unproven assertion that “It would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that progress has also been made on North Korea under the Bush Administration.” In fact, given that under Bush the North Koreans tested nukes, were driven farther underground and became aggressive and unhinged. While Obama was in office when they pulled out of the Armistice, threatened to bomb Hawaii and took two Americans hostage, it was Bush’s policies that caused North Korea to become less stable. Yet, you are given him credit for China and Russia being upset that North Korea is launching missiles, which isn’t just charitable its the exact opposite of progress. Meanwhile, after being put on the “state sponsors of terror” list, North Korea began to do just that, strengthening its ties with Burma and exporting nuclear technology to pretty much anyone unstable who wanted it.

    You are going to have to explain to me how it is “foolish” to call horrible, miserable failure what it is.

  2. carrbomb says:

    By no means am I defending the Bush Administration’s policy. Both Clinton and Bush policy have been utter failures. What made the Clinton Agreed Framework a failure is that it gave no timeframe within which agreed-upon events could occur and thereby encouraged stalling on both sides.

    One could blame Congressional Republicans for failure to withold our end of the bargain in that case, but after all, isn’t Congress supposed to decide what actually happens in this country and the President supposed to like “execute” Congress’s mandate?

    I prefer to think the Clinton Administration should have A: not promised what it was unable to give. And B: set a timeframe within which both parties must meet obligations, confirmed by the legislature, thereby allowing for the wild whims of the herd, should they choose to elect more members of the Legislative Branch from the other party.

    The Bush Administration should have held Kim Jong-Il to the conditions of the Agreed Framework and set a definitive timeframe for each stipulation. I don’t think it was wrong of the Bush Administration to incorporate regional powers into nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation diplomacy, and I find it ironic that most Democratic sympathizers criticize Bush for acting unilaterally with Iraq, yet fail to see the same arrogance with Clinton’s approach towards North Korea.

    Granted, Kim Jong-Il continued to enrich Uranium from 1994 to 2002 and began nuclear testing shortly thereafter. There were periods during both the Clinton and Bush Administrations where it seemed the international community was making progress on North Korea, but really, the program which has resulted in the recent tests and missile launches began in 1994.

    Bush should not have scrapped the Agreed Framework and started from scratch, as flawed as the Agreed Framework was, because it allowed Kim Jong-Il to gather, correctly, that the US cared more about partisan politics than disarmament and non-proliferation. It further increased Kim’s paranoia that any mid-term election could mean a wild shift in policy that could oust him from power.

    The conventional wisdom is that North Korea is erratic, unpredicatable, and irrational, like a rebellious teenager. However, in my opinion, every action taken by the North Korean regime is entirely rational and consistent with the diplomatic face it has been shown by two bungling administrations.

    The “progress” of which I speak is that, instead of aiding and abetting a known nuclear proliferator, as it did under Clinton, China has strongly condemned its nominal ally, generally due to the fear of alienating its major trading partner, Japan, and the fear of thousands of North Korean refuges crossing their border in the case of a civil war or famine. Notice also, that I didn’t say, “the Bush Administration made progress”. I said, “progress has been made… under the Bush Administration”, as China’s condemnation is obviously the result of a deteriorating situation that threatens the entire region.

    Despite the Bush Administration’s “horrible, miserable failure” in North Korea, Russia and China now both acknowledge that North Korea is a menace. Both regimes are willing to offer help. I stand by my contention that it would be foolish for Obama to not follow the Bush framework and utilize the power of Russia and China to compel the North Korean regime into behaving itself, because the US does not have enough clout in the region.

    What I am wary about is if the Obama Administration decides to return to the soft, unilateral Agreed Framework and exclude Russia and China from disarmament negotiations.

    I think it’s too late for another erasure of eight years worth of diplomacy and agreements, no matter how incompetent, as this would further reinforce Kim Jong-Il’s fears of a sudden radical shift in policy that has motivated North Korea’s nuclear program from the beginning.

    Thus far, the Obama Administration has shown a bipolar, convoluted face to North Korea, talking tough one minute and sending ex-presidents the next. This only increases Kim’s paranoia of a coup and reinforces his desire to develop a nuclear detterent.

    Obama needs to put the interests of the country and the world ahead of petty, partisan bickering and at least show North Korea a consistent face if he is not going to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, focus on non-proliferation and open trade, as I suggest.

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